Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and the Breaking Point in the Afghanistan War


Just like most news reportage in this break-neck-paced modern media, the story of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the soldier accused of going off base and murdering 16 innocent Afghans one week ago, has been disseminated widely and quickly. As such, many of the details have been, unfortunately, just speculation; the media has taken what they could find out about the man and arranged that information in a way where we, the consumers of media, can consider his motives (with more facts to come later).

In today’s journalism, if a story is a big one – and this one is a big one – it hangs around for a few days and weeks, its layers being peeled back like an onion. Unfortunately, the truth is in the middle, and when it finally comes to be seen, after so much hype and talk, it seems smaller, and no one really cares anymore.

Following this template of news consumption, from the time this story was released there’s been some pretty bombastic, impassioned, or wild claims and analysis: the New York Daily News headline, “Sergeant Psycho (with the subtitle: Killer G.I. had Suffered Traumatic Brain Injury),” calls for removal from Afghanistan, reminders about how hurtful the tenor of these stories can be to the hundreds of thousands of veterans with psychological disorders who have still served honorably.

Realistically, as stated, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. And it starts with Staff Sergeant Bales; but his tale is one that will be a barometer for the larger story: the Afghanistan War. We are at a breaking point. It didn’t happen right away, but a decade later, here we are. 

To explain, yes, this staff sergeant is not and should not be a poster-boy or example of the American soldier and how we fight. That’s a disgrace to the 2.4 million other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans whom this soldier has deeply setback (myself included) with his abhorrent actions. These stories are the outliers, so much outside the norm, they’re on the extreme periphery. However, this story cannot exist in a vacuum. I cannot and will not pretend to understand how and why someone would ever kill so many innocents in such a cold-blooded manner. But it’d be ludicrous to say that this man’s brain wasn’t impacted negatively and harshly by repeated deployments to combat zones, repeated battles, and repeated worries on the home front that were exacerbated by repeated deployments. Rinse. Lather. Get dirty again. Repeat.

The myth of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is, something bad happens – one single, horrible action – and then someone’s brain gets messed up. The truth is, the brain is a receptacle for misery and anguish and trauma, and sometimes it just gets filled up. Some of us have more room in our heads for garbage than others. But, make no mistake, everyone can be overloaded; everyone’s container can and will break if enough psychological pain gets shoved in there.

And this is where the tale of Staff Sergeant Bales, in some major ways, becomes a barometer and metaphor for the larger war. Where do we go from here? Their guys shoot our guys in cold blood (like the two field grade officers killed a couple weeks ago). We’ve done the same (and not just this recent story of SSGT Bales).    

How do we win a counterinsurgency when we can’t trust our allies and the people who’s “hearts and minds” we want to swoon and win over can’t totally trust us? Yes, this story is different because it was committed in cold blood; however, how do you explain “collateral damage” (the military’s term for accidental civilian deaths) to the family members of the hundreds of civilians (or thousands, depending on who you ask) we’ve accidentally killed before this incident? It’d be too convenient to forget that the Afghans and their leaders were already furious over that for quite some time now. How do we win when there’s been too much trauma and pain for both sides?

The saying goes, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but this recent trend – and the overall arc of this long war – is making success in Afghanistan evermore blurry. Will we have our steadfast victory, or will this time become the breaking point? This is not a knee-jerk question. It’s been 10 years.

Photo Credit: Dario DiBattista